I first saw a lesbian banned from Facebook for using the word dyke shortly after the Seattle Dyke March in 2016. Together with a dozen other lesbians, I helped make matching Lavender Menace t-shirts and huge signs with photos of famous lesbians on them. We were fired up about bringing back 1970s-style, untamed, confrontational lesbian feminism. We wore dyke like a merit badge. After all, it takes a lot of work and courage to be out. Like the Dykes on Bikes and the National Center for Lesbian Rights proved in their 2008 trademark and patents case, when lesbians use this word, it is not pejorative; it is celebratory. With our attendance at Dyke March and in posting pictures of the march on our Facebook timelines, we were saying, why yes, we are those wild homosexual women the straight world is so scared of. Thank you for noticing.
My friend’s pictures (including ones like that above) were taken down, even though many of the pictures did not have the word dyke in the picture or the caption, but they were uploaded to an album called something like “Dyke March.” She was banned for three days. I was scared, because it meant someone on her friends list was actually not her friend, and was a lesbophobe.
I use Facebook to promote my writing, poetry and activism, and I realized that without it, my platform would shrink considerably. These days, from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, I am, here and there throughout my day, checking in with my secret/closed lesbian groups. I’m in groups for lesbian political strategizing, lesbian emotional support, shameless discussion of sexuality, lesbian feminist memes, and dyke cruising. The friends I’ve made online are my real friends, and I talk to women from Australia to Canada, to Scotland, to Arkansas, to pretty much the English-speaking world over, on a daily basis. Being a lesbian can feel pretty isolating, but through Facebook, I have met women all over the world, and have ended up meeting many of them in real life, both in my hometown and across borders. Who among my grossly inflated 800+ friends list would anonymously report me?
In June 2017, Pride month no less, I noticed an uptick in women being banned for posting pro-lesbian content including the word dyke. I noticed this happening to very politically involved lesbians, writers and artists as well as completely apolitical lesbians. Facebook has said that all the content which is taken down and subsequent bans issued are based on individual reporting, rather than algorithmic or artificial intelligence monitoring. If this is true, every woman banned has some lesbophobic and vindictive friends on her list. And it also means that the individual people reviewing each report are not clear on the difference between hate speech and slurs, and celebratory language belonging to a group Facebook claims is protected against discrimination for sex, sexuality and gender identity.
In LGBT community, there is a pretty fierce tug-of-war going on between lesbians who are witnessing lesbian erasure, and people who are downplaying and outright denying that this is happening, or that it is politically problematic. The banning of lesbians for the use of terminology that belongs to us, that describes our experience, is erasure and silencing from virtual public space. It should be proof of the phenomenon of lesbian erasure, and it should scare/enrage/call to action all women and all LGBT people.
To get more information about this topic, I talked to Kate Hansen, a lesbian who was banned and has since become active in spreading the word on social channels and the mainstream media. I also talked to Lisa A. Mallet, who runs the blog Listening 2 Lesbians with her partner Liz Waterhouse (who was repeatedly banned). After our interview, Listening 2 Lesbians was able to interview an anonymous contact at Facebook. A summary of their response is below this interview.
When did this start happening?
Kate: I was banned on June 19th, 2017
How did banned women let people know they were banned?
Kate: My mother wrote on my page June 20th that I had been banned
How long do the bans last?
Kate: My ban was supposed to be 30 days, but they let me out yesterday after the globe and mail contacted them.
Has there been any ban on words like queer?
Kate: The word queer was not banned in my experience. Just the word dyke, and only in reference to actual women.
We know bans are coming from reporting. Can you talk more about the evidence for AI scanning and banning posts/links?
Kate: In this incidence the post I was banned for was something I said in a private group, so I think it’s likely AI.
Why do you think there’s less of a trend of banning gay men’s content?
Kate: I definitely think women are singled out and punished more than men are. For breast feeding as well. I do think women are targeted.
I’ve seen the Facebook community standards that say sex is a protected category, and so you’d think hate speech against women would violate those standards. However, I’ve personally reported posts that were about fucking b*tches and sl*ts or intentionally degrading “wh*res,” or glorifying prostitution, rape and violent murder of women, and they were not taken down. Why do you think people get away with posting stuff like that? Is it because sl*t/wh*re are not considered slurs in the same way dyke is? (in what universe could anyone think that, but for the purposes of identifying in what way something is violent/hate speech, do you think those words hold a different weight in cultural context?)
Kate: I think we live in a rape culture. I think men get away with a lot more foul language than women do. I actually think in this instance lesbians were unfairly targeted. I don’t care that my account was reinstated, I want Facebook to own up to their discrepancies.
We demand again in our petition to FB, “We are also calling on Facebook to do an investigation into the practices of their Community Operations Team, the content reviewers responsible for answering reports, scanning user posts, and carrying out bans and deletions. We demand that Facebook determine if any of their employees responsible for judging user content are showing a bias against women and lesbians. We call on Facebook to terminate the employment of any individual that has intentionally targeted women and lesbians for their beliefs and/or because they hate women and lesbians. We believe this investigation should also be conducted with regards to other minority groups as well.” Again, we want them to know that we see through them. FB also just announced, I want to say last week (?) that they are starting a new program to combat violence against women on FB. I find it hard to believe that this is anything but lip service and I fear that this will also backfire on the lesbian community.